Rizzo statue controversy takes down the Italian Market Facebook page

After calls for Councilwoman Helen Gym to resign and several attempts at an apology, the board decided to delete the page.

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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Updated 1:30 p.m.

Four days after a controversial post portraying Councilwoman Helen Gym as a racist and calling for her resignation appeared on the Italian Market Facebook page, the page has been deleted. The move comes less than 24 hours after the 9th Street Businessmen’s Association’s board of directors issued a formal apology for the original post.

“To our entire community, we are truly sorry and regret our overall lack of leadership regarding these social media postings and fully retract them,” read part of the Wednesday evening Facebook post, which also offered direct apologies to Gym and Mural Arts executive director Jane Golden.

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The message leaders of merchant’s association were trying to get across, per board secretary and Di Bruno Bros. co-owner Emilio Mignucci, was that it may well be time to discuss the future of the South Philly Frank Rizzo mural, but that debate does not belong on the official Italian Market Facebook page. Contacted Thursday morning, Mignucci said the board of directors had agreed by majority vote to take down the page entirely.

The latest apology was the fifth in a string of mea culpas published on the page, though the first three attempts were subsequently deleted. It all stems from Gym’s comments about removing the Frank Rizzo statue from the Municipal Services Building plaza.

The original post that sparked the tumult went up on Saturday, Aug. 20. Now taken down, the message is available to view via screenshots shared by people disappointed in its content. It’s highly political in nature, and many fans of the outdoor market were shocked to see it appear on that page.

No one was more surprised by the post than Mignucci, who was tending to a sick relative over the weekend and wasn’t aware the polemic had been published under the association’s banner until at least a day later.

Apparently, Mignucci said, the employee in charge of managing the page (a woman in her early-to-mid 20s who has not been identified) had been instructed by someone to copy, paste and publish the anti-Gym, pro-Rizzo diatribe. But that someone — who others on social media have identified as Jody Della Barba, Frank Rizzo’s former secretary — did not have the authority to make that demand.

“It’s on us, it’s the board of directors’ fault,” Mignucci told Billy Penn. “We don’t have protocols in place, we don’t have an SOP.” The board is currently writing up an official Standard Operating Procedure so this kind of thing doesn’t happen in the future, he said. “We’re in the process of creating those guidelines.”

Those guidelines will make clear that “we are not a PAC!” Mignucci continued. “That’s not who the Italian Market Association is! We are a group of merchants who sell food products and clothing products and other products.”

Contacted for her thoughts on the original post and the Facebook apology, which garnered additional comments calling her racist, Gym referred the request to City Council spokesperson Jane Roh. Per Roh, the councilwoman’s staff did speak with the board leadership via telephone and has formally accepted the apology. She is also setting up a face-to-face meeting with them in the near future.

Roh also made clear that Gym believes “the conversation about the statue must be separate from the mural. The statue is on public property and the mural is on private property. Her focus is really on the statue.” That said, Gym looks forward to a productive conversation with the board about how they got roped into all this, Roh said.

Vitriol over the pro-Rizzo post spilled over into the real world, per Mignucci. On Sunday, a different young woman working at the Italian Market Visitor’s Center storefront was verbally harassed by an activist furious about it, he said. “They were calling for somebody’s head in the association. And they caused some ‘physical issues’ in the visitors center, too.”

Even before Gym reignited the question of whether the Rizzo statue should come down in the wake of the Charlottesville protests, many Philadelphians had been asking the same about the Rizzo mural in the Italian Market. Per Mural Arts, that image is the single-most defaced mural in its entire collection.

“Maybe it is time for it to come down — I don’t know!” Mignucci said. “There was a time and place for it, but let’s have a conversation about it. Maybe it should be a mural that celebrates the diversity that’s come to the Italian Market.”

Whatever his personal feelings about Rizzo and his legacy, Mignucci made clear he believes they have no place on the official Italian Market page.

“Even the apology went wrong,” he admitted, describing the first attempts at making up for the original copy/paste post as rushed. “We didn’t give it the proper thought.”

After realizing that the issue wasn’t disappearing, the board collaborated on the formal apology posted last night. It garnered hundreds of comments — both from people appreciative of the attempt to make amends and people outraged that the board would deign to apologize.

And then the page was deleted.